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Question and Answer

What is Total Depravity?


Please explain briefly the doctrine of Total Depravity.

1. What it means and it does not mean.

2. Should the unbeliever know this doctrine? Why?

3. List of books that expound this doctrine.


Attempted answer:

1. Total Depravity (TD) is the biblical doctrine that relates to the sinfulness of man after the fall. When Adam and Eve sinned against God in Genesis 3, they became corrupt in their entire being and wholly incapable of doing anything truly good. This means that man became corrupt (not merely corruptible) in his thoughts, words and deeds. The Bible teaches this in many places. See Genesis 6:5 on man's heart and thoughts. See Proverbs 20:9 and Ecclesiastes 3:16-18 as well. The heart, according to Jeremiah, is "deceitfully wicked and desperately sick" (Jer. 17:9). Romans 3 is a very potent chapter on this subject as well. See verses 10-20 in particular. They make the point that no one does good, seeks God, understands, etc. 1 Corinthians 2:14 teaches us that the natural man cannot even understand the things of the Spirit of God. So to summarize, the Bible teaches that as a result of the fall (Adam's sin), all people are born corrupt. We sin against God. But sin is not simply what we do, it is now in the fabric of our being. Only God's grace can "reverse the curse."

The Westminster Confession has an entire chapter devoted to this doctrine. See chapter 6 "Of the fall of man, of sin, and of the punishment thereof." I will quote it at length:

1. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory.

2. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

3. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

4. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

5. This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.

6. Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

The doctrine of Total Depravity should be distinguished from utter depravity which would suggest that man is as bad as he could be. People often confuse the two ideas. TD teaches that man is corrupt in all his parts, but allows that God's restraining grace keeps man from becoming as bad as he could be.

2. I would suggest that the unbeliever needs to hear the law and the gospel. I'm not convinced that a complicated explanation of TD is helpful for an unbeliever. However, there are numerous ways in which it could be suggested that glimpses of the doctrine are given to unbelievers in the New Testament, sufficient to show them their depravity and hopelessness apart from Christ. John Murray, a respected theologian, is remembered for saying "grace without law is meaningless, and law without grace is pointless." The point is, unbelievers need to understand that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) and that "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:33). The gospel is like a lovely diamond; and diamonds are most visible against a dark piece of cloth. In this illustration, the law is the dark piece of cloth. It exposes our sin, and causes Christ's gospel to shine all the more.

3. Let me suggest a few books at a popular level: Putting the Amazing Back into Grace by Michael Horton, The 5 Points of Calvinism by Steele and Thomas, The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther. For more technical treatments, you can consult nearly all reformed systematics like John Calvin's Institutes, and Hodge's and Berkhof's systematic theologies.

You are wrestling with a difficult but important topic. Take your time. Pray your way through. Please let me know if you have any follow up questions.

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